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Handan Xuebu: What We Can and Should Learn from Other Countries

by Yong Zhao - August 18, 2011

American policy makers and pundits are in love with some foreign education systems and are working hard to bring their policies and practices home. Many presently proposed reform policies and practices are rationalized based on international comparisons. But is this infatuation justified? What can we really learn from other countries?

American policy makers and pundits are in love with some foreign education systems and are working hard to bring their policies and practices home. Others have national standards and a uniform curriculum, so should America (Finn, Julian, & Petrilli, 2006). Students in China and India spend more time in schools, so should American children (Obama, 2009). Other countries use national exams to sort students, so should America (Tucker, 2011). Teachers in other countries receive more training in content, so should teachers in America (Tucker, 2011). “Teachers in Singapore are appraised annually” and “our current evaluation system is fundamentally broken,” so America must fix teacher evaluation and hold them accountable for raising student test scores (Duncan, 2010).

The infatuation with foreign education systems is fueled by a simple and compelling message loudly broadcast by political leaders, business tycoons, and think-tank-backed researchers: every element of American education is broken, obsolete, and in crisis (Gates, 2005; Beck, 2009; StudentsFirst.org, 2011), and other countries have got it all right. America’s decentralized local control system is said to be chaotic, incoherent, discriminating, and wasteful, whereas others have a centralized system that ensures consistency, efficiency, and equity. American teachers are complacent, unmotivated, and ill-prepared, while teachers in other countries are of “higher cognitive ability” (Auguste, Kihn, & Miller, 2010), better prepared (Tucker, 2011), and held to more rigorous accountability standards. Curriculum and textbooks in other countries are structured and written. Students in other countries work harder. And parents in other countries care more about their children’s education.

In short, the argument goes, to save America, to retain America’s preeminence in the world, to ensure America’s global competitiveness, we must dismantle America’s education system and import policies and practices from other countries.

Some degree of hyperbole is understandable when a strong message needs to be sent, but the actual policy and practice proposals put forward do indeed show that America is aggressively replacing its education traditions with foreign imports. Before we complete the journey to greener pastures, it is prudent to ask a few questions that hopefully can stimulate some second thoughts about this migration.

Is the Grass Greener on the Side of the Ocean?

American’s love affair with education systems in other countries, ironically, stems from its fear of others. In the 1950s, the former Soviet Union scared Americans with the launch of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, and as a result the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) was enacted. In the 1980s, the Japanese scared Americans with their automobiles, and subsequently the U.S. conducted studies and A Nation at Risk was published. In the 1990s, East Asian countries such as Singapore and South Korea scared Americans with their stellar performance in math and science in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and in turn the United States accelerated the standards movement. In the 21st Century, China and India began to scare Americans. Most recently, China’s top ranking in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) was called another Sputnik moment.

It is one thing to be vigilant, to constantly and continuously evaluate and improve, and to learn from others. It is another to panic, to act out of fear, and to blindly glorify others. Evidence suggests that the supposedly greener education pastures of other countries are largely an illusion.

The Soviet Union, which was said to have a superior education (Wilson, 1958), is no longer so regarded. Japan, which supposedly had a lead in the “learning gap” ahead of the U.S. (Stevenson & Stigler, 2006), has been undergoing a decade of slow growth and was recently replaced by China as the world’s second largest economy. And Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and China have since the 1990s been diligent students of American education, launching reforms to emulate what America is eager to throw away (Zhao, 2009).


The belief that education in certain other countries is superior largely began with and has been reinforced by a myopic perspective of what constitutes high quality education. This perspective easily leads to the tendency to jump to the conclusion that when a country rises economically (in the case of Japan and China) or militarily (in the case of the Soviet Union), it must have an excellent education system. The same perspective also leads to the conclusion that high test scores indicate educational excellence. As a result, observers rushed to Russia, Japan, China, Singapore, Finland, and Korea to search for their secrets to educational excellence and of course found what they wanted to find: standardized curriculum, a focus on academic subjects that “matter,” teachers prepared and incentivized to deliver the prescribed subjects efficiently, and well-disciplined students devoted to mastering the prescribed content, with parental support.

But the linkage between economic growth and education is neither lineal nor unidirectional. Economic growth can both benefit from and be a benefit to education. Test scores on international standardized assessments in a few subjects are not necessarily valid or accurate measures of the quality of education and are certainly not great predictors of a nation’s prosperity. American students have a long history of poor performance on international assessments (Zhao, 2011), always showing at the bottom since the First International Mathematics Study in the 1960s. But President Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union speech:

America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers -- no workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We’re the home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any place on Earth. (Zhao, 2011)

Since the poor American test takers on the First, Second, and Third international Mathematic Studies have apparently not ruined America’s economic and innovation records, and other high scorers have not taken over, we should seriously ask the question: is the grass on the side of the ocean really greener?

Perhaps instead of defining “high-performing national education system” as “one in which students’ achievement at the top is world class, the lowest performing students perform not much lower than their top-performing students, and the system produces these results at a cost well below the top spenders” (Tucker, 2011, p. 4), we need to look beyond students’ achievement, as measured by test scores, for qualities that are not as easily measured, such as independent and creative thinking, entrepreneurship, talent diversity, and emotional well-being (Wadhwa, 2011; Zhao, 2009). Measuring these qualities may show that “U.S. schools are still ahead—way ahead,” as Wadhwa recently wrote in Business Week (Wadhwa, 2011).

Are “happy families all alike?”

Those enamored with foreign education systems seem to have taken Leo Tolstoy’s opening line of Anna Karenina too seriously and forgotten the second part: “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” They attempt to extract some universal factors of the “happy families” or “high achieving education system” and apply them to the unhappy American education. For example, the recently released paper by Marc Tucker of the National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE) tries to develop an agenda for American education reform by “standing on the shoulders of giants,” that is, education giants—countries with high test scores on the PISA. “This paper is the answer to a question: What would the education policies and practices of the United States be if they were based on the policies and practices of the countries that now lead the world in student performance” (Tucker, 2011)? Earlier McKinsey and Company tried to do the same with How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come out on Top (McKinsey & Company, 2007).

There are at least two problems with this view. First, there are really no completely happy families all the time. The educational systems with high scores all have their own problems and challenges. The Asian systems are struggling to liberate their students from a test-driven education so they can be more creative, entrepreneurial, confident, and critical thinkers (Ho, 2003; OECD, 2011; Tan & Gopinathan, 2000; Tucker, 2011; Zhao, 2009). Finland faces challenges of how to educate an increasingly culturally and ethnically diverse population (Sunnari & Rasanen, 2000; Talib & Hosoya, 2007) and address the achievement gaps between girls and boys as well as Swedish speaking students and Finnish speaking students (Chung, 2009).

Of course, a system does not have to be perfect to offer something we can learn but then here is the second problem: “happy families” are not really alike. What works for one system does not necessarily work for others. The McKinsey report discovers the “secrets” in the “black box” that lead to success:

The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers;

The only way to improve outcome is to improve instruction;

High performance requires every child to succeed. (McKinsey & Company, 2007)

Tucker’s analysis of the giants resulted in a much longer list that includes clear goals and expectations, high quality teachers, high quality principals, exams and incentives for students, sorting students using external exams, access to high-quality education for all students, accountability and autonomy.

This is not exactly a list of earth-shattering findings that would give me the “aha!” moment. These generic abstractions disguise the real differences in policies and practices of the high-achieving systems. “There are few things that all of the most successful countries do,” admits Tucker, and “[I]n fact, examples of excellent practice in almost every arena of importance can be found in the United States” (Tucker, 2011, p. 2).

To be fair, both the Tucker and the McKinsey papers attempt to describe how these abstracted factors are differently realized in each educational context, but that is precisely my point. Not all happy families are alike, at least not in terms of what makes them happy. Finland’s success may come from high-quality teachers and teaching, local autonomy, and an egalitarian and homogenous society, while East Asian systems succeed based on a meritocratic centralized system that places high stakes on test scores, which the Finns reject (Chung, 2009). Perhaps what is truly common across the high performers on the PISA is their small geographical size and relatively homogenous population, when compared to the United States.

What makes one happy can also be the cause of unhappiness. For instance, Finland’s egalitarian approach has caused concerns about not offering enough opportunities for the gifted and talented students (Chung, 2009). Its cultural homogeneity is in fact the source of challenges for educating culturally diverse students (Sunnari & Rasanen, 2000; Talib & Hosoya, 2007). And in Asia, the exclusive focus on testing scores and devotion to a few academic subjects are the sources of frustration over a lack of creativity and innovative talents. These countries are not celebrating what their students have learned, but are concerned with what has been excluded. Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, identifies Shanghai, China as the Number One PISA scorer:

Compared with other societies, young people in Shanghai may be much more immersed in learning in the broadest sense of the term. The logical conclusion is that they learn more, even though what they learn and how they learn are subjects of constant debate. Critics see young people as being “fed” learning because they are seldom left on their own to learn in a way of their choice. They have little direct encounters with nature, for example, and little experience with society either. While they have learned a lot, they may not have learned how to learn. (OECD, 2011, p. 93).

Handan Xuebu: What and How to Learn from Other Countries?

I am not opposed to learning from other nations. In fact, I have been a strong advocate for global educational exchanges and learning from each other. But I am opposed to handan xuebu, a concept that originates from a Chinese tale in which a young man who has no confidence in himself, not even in his own way of walking, decides to go to Handan to imitate its style of walking, but he eventually forgets how to walk altogether.

American education has many problems, but to paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, it is the worst form of education except for all others that have been tried. The decentralized system with local governance is a fundamentally sound framework that has evolved within the American context, that has led to America’s economic prosperity and scientific preeminence so far, and that is being studied and copied by others. There are merits and strengths that cannot be ignored. Even today, after decades of aggressive assault and bashing, 34% of the Americans still have “a great deal” or “quiet a lot” of confidence in American public schools, while another 38% have some confidence, according to a recent Gallup poll (Jones, 2011). The figure is not great, but compared to the 37% rate of confidence in the Supreme Court, 35% in the Presidency, 19% in big business, and 12% in Congress, it definitely does not deserve to be called broken, obsolete, or subjected to a complete overhaul unless such terms and actions are similarly applied to the U.S. democracy.

Thus what we can and should learn from other countries should not be attempts that destroy America’s traditional strengths—a broad definition of education, a broad and well-rounded curriculum, decentralized decision making, autonomy for local communities and teachers, a philosophy that celebrates diversity, respects individual differences, and values deviation. When we learn, we should not only learn what others do, but also what others don’t or do not want to do. We should not only superficially look at what policies and practices work in other countries, but we must also deeply examine what contextual factors (cultural, economical, societal, and traditional) make them work. We should not only look at the positive outcomes, but also the trade-offs.

In terms of how to learn, it would make much more sense and impact to engage educators, local school leaders, students, and parents in global exchanges rather than having governments or think-tanks attempt to determine what America should learn from others. A distributed global learning network of teachers, students, school leaders, and parents can truly help move education forward because these are the people who deal with concrete problems, face daily challenges, and thus know what they can borrow from and what they can contribute to others. And with today’s technology, the masses can engage in their global exchanges without the filtering of the so-called experts. The government’s role should be to grant the autonomy, create the opportunity, and provide the support.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 18, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16516, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:34:35 PM

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About the Author
  • Yong Zhao
    University of Oregon
    E-mail Author
    YONG ZHAO is Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education at the College of Education, University of Oregon. He is the author of Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization (ASCD, 2009). He blogs at: http://zhaolearning.com
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